Absence Makes the Art Grow Stranger
By Nick Pelling
It’s an old art teaching maxim – look closely at what is not there. At the shape of spaces. Tom Banks has been staring at St Leonards for 19 years. Tom is a St Leonards postman but also a painter – he walks the streets but also absorbs them. Back In his studio he explores the way the contours of suburbia give way at times, particularly as the night drops in, to a sense of things being both familiar but strange. Even haunting.
Tom was born in Camberwell, but he has spent most of his life in Hastings. He did his Art Foundation at the old Hastings College of Art and Technology. Donning the Postie uniform was, of course, initially just a means of surviving as an artist, but oddly, the humdrum business of plodding the streets has become central to his art practice.
Tom’s fascination is with the buildings around us, perhaps particularly the varied boxes in which we dwell. His paintings frequently depict ordinary houses and often at nightfall. In addition to the slightly unnerving way our streets might look in semi-darkness there is a curious sense of human presence but never a person to be seen. Tom says he was once asked, “do you not like people?” as if he yearned for a post-apocalyptic world. But his answer was intriguing, “I love people, but just not in my paintings.” Human absence adds an eery quality, but the nature of the uneasiness is hard to pin down. He suggests that he is working around the notion of “uncomfortable nostalgia”. The phrase seems loaded with possible meaning but also a little enigmatic.
Although acclaim has never been his driving motivation, the art world has acknowledged Tom. In 2016 he won the international contemporary painting prize, known as the Beep Prize. The winning painting depicted a power station at night – creepy but also somehow strangely beautiful. He has also exhibited way beyond the Hastings shoreline – all over from Margate to Barcelona. His first ever exhibition was entitled Things that are there, and under that heading much of his work might still be bracketed.
(Left) MetaVita 1 (Right) House no. 9
His most recent project, soon to be exhibited, was as part of the Ground collective of artists working in conjunction with APT Gallery in Deptford. Their idea has been to produce work by simply focussing on things that tend to be overlooked. In effect, to slow right down and genuinely look at what the people of Deptford might overlook. Tom’s remarkable approach to this concept was a decision to walk every inch of the boundary of Lewisham Borough. This meant that he has had to walk twenty seven miles whilst stopping every mile to take a photograph from which to paint. He was also determined to see Deptford after dark – not a common dream. He has now created a cluster of small squarish paintings, as brush-shots of forgotten corners of South London. Closer to his Hastings home, Tom has just finished exhibiting as part of Tree of Life show at the Electro Studios in St Leonards.
Tom is a quiet man, not given to speak the pretentious language of art theory, mercifully. Instead, he continues to stare at the little boxes, and they stare back. And out of that that strange visual tension the postman creates something quietly, darkly fascinating. As W. H. Auden observed, the postman’s arrival can always stir “a quickening of the heart” but it is also worth remembering that a slow observation can occasionally reveal a truth unseen.
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